Sunday, December 16, 2018

MESSAGE FOR ADVENT #2

Worshiping the Baby Christ Child
 
Redemption came to us wrapped in swaddling clothes. We could not have been more surprised by the manner in which God sent his Son to us.

But in our astonishment, we must be careful of how we interpret this message of redemption. It is actually the totally surprising manner in which Christ came that may even contribute to our confusion about who he is. The story of his birth is so marvelous that we make the telling story the focus, instead of the deeper significance of the story.

This is dangerous, because if it is only the story that is the focus of our worship, Jesus merely becomes one of the characters of the story, and as a mere character, he is not allowed to change. We may worship him in a sense, but our worship may be misplaced. 

The Story in Two Parts Only

Whether or not the date of Christ's birth is an accurate one, and despite the way in which the church arrived at the day, Christmas has long been the time of the year when we celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ.

It is true that in our churches, we celebrate Christ often throughout the year. As churches, we gather to celebrate Jesus at least once a week. In many of our homes, we celebrate him every day.

However, for very many people, the only time that Jesus is actually celebrated is twice a year—at Christmas and at Easter. For most of the year, most people are so busy with their lives they have very little time to think about Jesus.

It is good, therefore, to have a celebration like Christmas to remind us of the Messiah. However, there is some danger in this as well. 

The Dangers of Christmas

Christmas, along with Easter, are the big Christian religious holidays of the year. As I said, they are really the only times of the year when many people think about Jesus. Because of this, these people have come to have a distorted view of who Jesus is.

If you think about it, you can see why.

At Christmas, we see Jesus as a little baby lying in a manger in the crèche—a “pesebre” as I noted in the previous  Advent post. He is a helpless infant and totally in need of his mother’s protection and care.

Likewise, at Easter, we again see a Jesus that is helpless. This time we see him beaten and bloodied and hanging on a cross. This is especially true in the countries where I worked for many years in much of Latin America, where the emphasis is placed strongly on the suffering of Jesus, yet the fact of the resurrection sometimes goes almost uncelebrated.

This becomes a danger when so much is made of the crucifixion and less of the resurrection of Jesus. During holy week in nearly every village and city throughout Latin America, Jesus is depicted as scourged and defeated, hanging on a cross and paraded through the streets. He is seen not necessarily as a Savior who rescues us, but as a defeated man who only deserves our pity. I have been in churches where they have a coffin made of glass that contains a dead and emaciated body of Jesus, while standing over him is a radiant, victorious (and, by implication, resurrected) figure of Mary.

How is it that we have twisted the good news of the Bible to come to this completely false teaching? For many who are exposed only to the Jesus of Christmas and Easter, the only image that they have of Jesus is someone in need of protection. He is either the helpless baby Jesus, or he is to be pitied as he hangs dead on a cross.

People with these two perspectives only do not see the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is no wonder that for many, Jesus has no power in their lives. How can he have power in their lives if they do not know him as a person of power? 

A Time of High Emotion

Many people like the thought of the little baby Jesus because it is something that gives us emotional satisfaction. Who does not love the thought of the little baby in its mother’s arms? It is a time of great joy. At Christmas we sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”

Interestingly, in the celebration that surrounds Holy Week at Easter is also a time of very high emotion. In this commemoration, there is the crucifixion. Here the high emotion is the great sorrow that we experience at the death of Jesus. It is the other extreme in our emotional gamut to the joy of the birth of Jesus.

It is true that we are people of emotion. It would be foolish to deny that emotion is important to us. However, it is also dangerous to allow ourselves to be ruled too much by our feelings. We all know that emotions can carry us to the heights of elation, but they can also plunge us to the depths of depression. We also know that our sentiments are not always based on reality. In the end of it all, our emotions are not good indicators of reality.

I think that this is especially important to remember this at Christmas, because at this time, it is not only the joy of the Christ child that we celebrate. As I mentioned in the previous post, Christmas has also become a time of celebration of family.

In this time of year, we try to get together as families. We hug sons and daughters whom we have not been able to see for a long time. We have special dishes that we prepare for our Christmas meal. Perhaps we all go over to Grandpa and Grandma’s house and enjoy, once again, our family traditions.

Many of our Christmas songs involve family traditions. “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the wide and drifted snow.”

However, to allow Christmas be a time of such high emotion can be a dangerous thing. Some have family members that cannot come home. Some are from families where a loved one has died in the past year and this Christmas will be much different from the ones in the past. This year, along with the cup of joy, there will also be the bitter cup.

For the Christian however, these present emotions can never change the eternal reality of what God has promised. 

Do We Come to Adore, or to Worship?

If we are wise, we will ask the same questions that the magi from the east asked. These men, while studying the heavens saw a star, which in their tradition was a sign that a great king was to be born. Thus, they traveled westward seeking the Christ child.

However, they did not come seeking a little infant so that they could remark how cute he looked and pinch his chubby little cheek, but they asked, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? We have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

The journey of the wise men was not an emotional journey. They did not come to adore a little baby. They came to worship a King.

And so, we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the Christ child. We must be wise in our worship. Emotionally, we think of a little baby Jesus wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. We think of mother Mary and Joseph, who, although he was not the father of Jesus, this night had the role of the father. To adore the baby Christ child is an emotional part of our worship and it can be good, but if we are wise, we will also worship the King. 

Happy Birthday Jesus! (Be Careful How You Do It)

While we may conclude that it is a good thing to remember the birth of Jesus, we must also recognize how different from other birthday celebrations do we observe Jesus’ birth. When we celebrate the birthdays of our own children, we often think of the time when they were born, but we also know that in reality, they do not remain infants. With each birthday, our children have matured. We mention how much they have grown and celebrate the things that they have accomplished in the past year. Every year there is another candle on the cake. In the days of birthday spankings, there is one extra slap every year (I do not know if families still do this, but we did when I was growing up).

I do not wish to take away from the wonder of the fact of Christ’s birth. It is a miracle that defies our understanding. The birth of Jesus is the infinite being born into the finite. In the miracle of the incarnation, Jesus was born to a mother whom he, himself had created. This, we cannot understand and it is because of this that we can never cease to marvel at his birth.

However, we must also separate ourselves from the pure emotion of the season. We do not come to see a little baby to remark how cute he is and to congratulate the parents. We come to worship a king. We ask, “Where is He who is born the king of the Jews?”  

Recognizing the Reality

With these thoughts, I would like to look to one of the best biblical passages on the incarnation and one that is not often read for Christmas. In Philippians 2:6-11, we find these words by the Apostle Paul:  

...Although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 

This is what we celebrate at Christmas time. It is the Infinite being born into the finite. It is the Creator being born into the creation. This is something that we cannot understand. It is beyond our ability to comprehend and yet, it was because of his love for us and his desire to redeem us that Jesus was born a man. Paul continues in this passage:  

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

Here is the crucifixion. This is what we commemorate during holy week.

Thus, in this passage we have the two major Christian holidays of the year. In these verses, we see Jesus as a newborn infant and the suffering crucified Messiah. However, if we stop with these two images, we make a terrible error, because we have neglected the most important of all. If we stop here, we are in danger of being carried away by our emotions only. That is why Paul continues: 

Therefore, also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 

This is what Simeon saw.

As we remember, Simeon was the old man in the temple who was there the day that Mary and Joseph came to present Jesus to the Lord. Simeon took the infant Jesus in his arms. This old man had the same perspective as did the kings from the east who came looking for the King of the Jews. Taking Jesus in his arms, Simeon did not remark how cute the baby was and kiss his little cheek.

Rather, Simeon lifted his eyes and said to the Lord, “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:30-32 NAS).

The kings from the east came and asked, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? We have come to worship him.”

Wise men, two millennia ago, sought to worship the King. How is it today that so many only seek an infant? The One whom we celebrate today is not an infant in a manger, but He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. 

And I saw heaven opened; and behold, a white horse, and He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and wages war. And His eyes are a flame of fire, and upon His head are many diadems; and He has a name written upon Him which no one knows except Himself. And He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood; and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. 

And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.

And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”
(Revelation 19:11-16 NAS).

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